Fugitive Flights: Nick Cave and Wings of Desire

While perhaps a somewhat dubious honour to the Australian musician, when I first heard Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds I was struck by how effectively he seemed to have tapped into a particularly “American Gothic” sense of sin and felony. At any rate, his appreciation for the work of Johnny Cash is certainly evident in his collected discography, narrating, as it does, dark scenes of love, death, crime and condemnation with classic goth rock wedded to country tunes and ersatz organs that scream out of a religion in which the Devil is everywhere, and salvation so very, very fleeting.

These themes are very well brought out by Pernille L.G.’s accompaniment for “Up Jumped the Devil”, which is an excellent example of an artistically sophisticated fan-created music video, and speaks to the positive effect of YouTube in exhibiting these kinds of projects to a much broader audience than they might have otherwise enjoyed. The use of stop motion animation for the bones, the manipulation (and incineration) of paper characters and the skillful setting of the action to the rhythm of Nick Cave’s music set this out from the bulk of similar videos.

Speaking of artistically inclined movies, I was also quite enthused to learn of Nick Cave’s appearance in the film Der Himmel Über Berlin – Wings of Desire, in the English release. A meditative romantic fantasy starring Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as the weary and world-curious angels Damiel and Cassiel, and also featuring Peter Falk (of Columbo fame), Wings of Desire is a worthwhile and important film, and a poignant snapshot of Berlin in the 1980s, before the fall of the wall.

So I suppose the theme of this post has been the way in which art begets art, and speaks to its diverse globe-spanning influence, from America, to Australia, Germany and Denmark, Pernille’s base of operations. Indeed, I can think of few things more fugitive, or fulfilling.

For More Information:

http://www.youtube.com/user/TheLovelyCreature (Pernille’s Youtube channel)

http://www.nickcaveandthebadseeds.com/home

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Cave

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wings_of_desire

Living Fossils

Neopilina galathea

The search for sea monsters often brings up living fossils, albeit of a more diminutive stature than what its investigators had hoped for. One of these notable expeditions was that of the Galathea mounted between 1950 and 1952 by Anton Bruun “with the serious purpose of testing his theory that such creatures [as sea-serpents] do in fact exist”. While no sea-serpents were seen, they did discover a number of living fossils, such as Neopilina galathea, a primitive mollusk which is neither clam nor snail. While not being the first to discover it, they also found a number of unusually named Vampyrotheuthis infernalis (vampire squid from hell), which is neither octopus nor squid. The belief in, and search for, living fossils is as old as our first encounter with deep sea dredging in the 1800s. Louis Agassiz, commonly known as the pioneer of oceanography and marine biology hoped to find them, as did Darwin’s bulldog, T.H. Huxley. It was thought that the deep sea could have isolated creatures known only in the fossil records so that they were protected from the more successful competitors that were seen as having driven them to extinction.

Even today it is the ocean, and particularly the deep ocean, that predominates in the discussion of living fossils. In a collection on this subject edited by Niles Eldredge and Steven M. Stanley in 1984, twenty-three of the thirty-two articles were on oceanic living fossils. Yet most interesting is the conclusions that these two draw from the discussion, and what these finds mean for the nature of evolution. The very concept of living fossils seems to pose a challenge to the view of a gradual, but ever present, evolutionary push. They tend to be seen as anomalies, and there are a number of competing theories to explain their existence: “Perhaps they lack the requisite genetic variability, or have not yet been subjected to strong […] selection pressure [or] they have been subjected to a straightjacket of unrelenting stabilizing selection” (Living Fossils, 272). Eldredge explains the desire to see these creatures as anomalies by stating that “even the most sophisticated of evolutionists have tended to see evolutionary change as inevitable, given simply the passage of vast stretches of time”. Yet his own analysis avoids confronting the inevitability of evolution altogether.

For Eldredge the existence of living fossils is more an expression of how we tend to classify species, than of what those species actually are. The problem he sees is rather that we tend to look at species as being skin deep. We see that extremely slow rates of evolution “(and, for that matter, all problems of evolutionary rates) are strictly a matter of the transformation of aspects of the phenotype. This is, after all, how we detect the problem in the first place”. What Eldredge suggests is that “speciation […] may be accompanied by a great deal of anatomical, behavioral, and physiological change, or hardly any at all”. The existence of living fossils is merely proof that we need to look into the molecular signs of evolution rather than those which are purely morphological. At the end of his paper he concludes: “no one supposes that it is the actual longevity of a single species that underlies the cases of extraordinarily low-rate lines of morphologic transformation”. From a modern perspective this is the only way he could conclude, for to say otherwise would be to question the inevitability of evolution itself.

Yet it is exceedingly difficult to collect molecular evidence of evolution from the fossil records, to confirm or disprove Eldrege’s conclusion. Rather, it would perhaps be more scientific to say only that the existence of such creatures as Vampyrotheuthis infernalis and its deep sea brethren has, if anything, raised an interesting doubt about the nature and pace of evolutionary change. Up to the modern time molecular biology has increasingly taken centre stage, a move that has only recently received any substantial challenge. Genetics, while concerning itself with biology, is more closely related to physics and engineering than with the naturalists of old, and since Steven Jay Gould their have been few elegant interpreters of evolutionary theory. Many prominent nineteenth-century naturalists stressed that the concept of species was a kind of useful fiction, but if anything, the genetic turn has ignored this kind of detachment. It is assumed that the genetic material is the blueprint of life, everything is there, and since genetic tests can show the range of “normal” variation, they are at liberty to use this to determine speciation.

I am not up on the most recent trends in evolutionary biology and genetics, but an overview of the popular literature on the matter would seem to suggest this position. Sharks and Crocodiles are living fossils, but no one seems to notice, because they are, in a way, normal. They do not seem to exist in the conceptually unsettling in-between, like octopus and squid, or clam and snail. Regardless of how I feel about the logic behind it though, there is something delightfully paradoxical and archaic about the concept of the living fossil; creatures who, even in the deep time of evolutionary history, are worthy of being called old.

Bibliography:

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2003.

Eldredge, Neiles and Steven m. Stanley, eds. Living Fossils. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984.

Ellis, Richard. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998.

Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It. New York: Thomas Y.

Crowell Company, 1964.

Ley, W. Scylla Was a Squid. Natural History Magazine. 2007. 25 Feb. 2007.

<http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1941_06_pick.html>.

Nigg, Joseph ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient

Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Packard, A.S. Jr. Colossal Cuttlefishes. The American Naturalist, vol. 7, No. 2. (Feb.,

1873). <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0147%28187302%297%3A2%3C87%3ACC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5>.

Rice, Tony. Deep Ocean. London: The Natural History Museum, 2000.

Verrill, A.E. The Colossal Cephalopods of the North Atlantic. II. The American

Naturalist, vol. 9, No. 2. (Feb., 1875).  <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0147%28187502%299%3A2%3678%ATCCOTN%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4>.

Verrill, A. Hyatt. The Ocean and Its Mysteries. New York: Duffield & Co, 1925.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_fossil

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Bruun

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocodile

The Monster You Know

Stirrup vase with image of an octopus, Rhodes, ca 1200-1100 BC (Currently in the Louvre).

If something is large, and from the darker corners of the deepest oceans, people tend to call it a sea monster, or, if it is vaguely tubular in shape, a sea serpent. It is a powerful and not entirely rational response to the strangeness, and yet also the familiar nature of marine life. In the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as in the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, there were three conceptual categories of sea creature, chimerical sea monsters, strange sea monsters, and familiar animals. Most interesting, however, is how strange, borderline sea monsters intersected with the familiar in a way that had definite consequences for how marine biology was explored and recorded. The ancient Greeks and Romans generally excluded marine invertebrates from their list of sea monsters because of their familiarity with them. However, the very category of sea monster could itself become something familiar. Historically, the feeling that sea monsters were prevalent off of their shores caused the people of many Scandinavian nations to see them less and less as something truly monstrous, and more as objects of national pride.

There were two kinds of sea monster in the ancient world. The first kind was described when strange creatures were discovered to have washed ashore. The earliest written records of these kinds of encounters come from the Greeks and Romans, most noticeably in the writings of Pliny the Elder (23 to 79), but also in the writings of Aristotle. Pliny attests that: “During the rule of Tiberius, in an island off the coast of the province of Lyons the receding ocean tide left more than 300 monsters at the same time, of marvelous variety and size, and an equal number on the coast of Saintes”. Furthermore, “Turranius has stated that a monster was cast ashore on the coast at Cadiz that had 24 feet of tail-end between its two fins, and also 120 teeth”. While Pliny is known to have accepted second and third hand accounts in his study of the natural world, there is some consistency in the manner in which most of the creatures he described were discovered. Those that bear some resemblance to the living but strange things we recognize today all washed ashore. The second kind, whose stories lack this costal caveat, tend to be of a composite nature (Mermaids, Tritons, Nereids, the hippocampus and their ilk).

Cephalopods, in particular octopi and squid generally transcended both of these distinctions though, since they were so familiar to those living around the Mediterranean. Though a partial exception to this is an anecdote that is generally seen as featuring a giant squid. One was found stealing salted fish out of the fish ponds in Carteia on the Atlantic coast of Spain. According to Pliny the guards that came to protect the fish stores were held at bay for some time, as the creature used its tentacles as clubs before being dispatched. While the behavior is hard to account for, the physical description as well as the creature being designated as a polyp, rather than merely as a monster, would seem to indicate that it possessed a cephalopodan nature of immense proportions. They were “astounded by its strangeness: in the first place its size was unheard of and so was its color as well […] who would have expected to find a polyp there, or who would recognize it in such circumstances? They felt they were pitted against something uncanny”. Thus even in this case, the story of the sea monster is almost of something familiar, strange only in virtue of its size and colour.

Unlike later interpreters, the ancient Greeks did not possess a strong aversion to cephalopods, and indeed even considered them a delicacy. As C. P. Idyll noted in Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It: “The ancients of the Mediterranean region considered cephalopods choice morsels. […] Pliny tells us that the gourmands of Rome ate every variety of octopus known in the Mediterranean”. Also, some of the earliest know depictions of cephalopods on pottery and other crafts emerge from this region. Thus, the appearance of a giant squid or other similar cephalopod would not have been as difficult for the ancients to comprehend, and such creatures fit easily into the taxonomic classifications of that time. This ancient familiarity with large aquatic invertebrates was what allowed Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC) to characterize the giant squid teuthos along with its smaller brethren teuthis without defaulting to assigning it a monstrous status, unlike other cultural groups. It was this same familiarity that allowed Pliny to characterize the creature in Carteia as a polyp, rather than a monster. As the lessons of the ancient world show, we are really always talking about a continuum of strange, but familiar creatures, oddities that wash ashore and fantastical chimeras when attempting to understand the nature of sea monsters. For this continuum to appear in such a definite form in western literature after this time, we must next look to the Scandinavian nations during the northern renaissance, and the writings of the Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus (1490 to 1557).

The Malstrum, in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina

Magnus’s Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, Vandals and Other Northern Nations records the existence of sea monsters. In it he describes creatures which have “horrible [forms], their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes”. It is now generally considered that the creature Magnus is describing was a giant squid, and that the “horns” were a complete misunderstanding of where the creature’s head was supposed to be. Richard Ellis points out that this can be a problem even for modern day observers: “Architeuthis is assembled of a strange collection of parts that bespeak an alien creature rather than one we are used to”. There is no ready frame of reference for some of the creatures of the deep, no common ground telling us what is front to back, or what is head from tail.

Interestingly, the quality of familiarity that we saw in the ancient world takes on a different aspect in Scandinavia, appearing not largely in the form of the culinary arts, but as a defining aspect of national and regional identity. Magnus’ account appears in a history of the northern nations, and he would not be alone in paring this history with a rich collection of benthic monstrosities. Bishop Erik Pontoppidan of Bergen, Norway (1698 to 1764), Magnus’ intellectual descendent in matters relating to sea monsters, was also a part of this tradition.

Despite Pontoppidan’s use of first hand accounts in his Natural History of Norway, he was largely recognized through most of the 20th century as an unreliable source for natural historians because of his seemingly fanciful descriptions of sea serpents and the notorious kraken. Most seemingly absurd was one of the accounts he collected from local fishermen, which stated that the kraken’s: “back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance an English mile and a half in circumference, (some say more, but I chuse the least for greater certainty) looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats […] like seaweed”. In 1941 W. Ley writing in the Natural History Magazine criticized this description, and chided the Bishop for his uncritical acceptance of unskilled witnesses, saying: “It was because of this story that the existence of giant squids was doubted and ridiculed for more than a century after the first printing of Bishop Pontoppidan’s book”. However, most of the Bishop’s methods for collecting his data were sound, even by today’s standards. He used first hand accounts and described cases in which the creatures had been well documented as having washed ashore. He discussed the existence of sea serpents and krakens with reputable captains who had claimed to have seen such creatures, including one Capitan von Ferry, who sent a description of his encounter to the Court of Justice in Bergen by Pontoppidan’s request. Here we begin to get a picture of how strange biology can become familiar through regional traditions, even when there is no daily contact as in the case of the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean. This same source of knowledge is also highly susceptible to criticism attacking its seemingly bucolic origins.

Yet while tradition can be undermined by those who denigrate the quality of witness testimony, in the study of sea monsters we can also see how strangeness, unified with this very same sense of familiarity, can nevertheless produce definite agendas for exploration. It did so in the Scandinavian nations from the middle ages to the present. Conversely, in the case of the world around the ancient Mediterranean, the message is different, showing how not only are we what we eat, but we also ingest a large portion of our view of nature and the world around us from the comfort of our dining tables.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaus_Magnus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontoppidan

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Elder

The Galathea Expedition: On the Tail of a Sea Serpent

Regardless of when the existence of giant deep sea creatures was first confirmed beyond all doubt. There was, and still is, an effort made to understand the myths and legends of sea monsters as being either large cephalopods, or some other deep sea creature. One of the most notable expeditions in the history of deep sea biology was that of the Galathea 2, mounted between 1950 and 1952 by Anton Bruun “with the serious purpose of testing his theory that such creatures [as sea serpents] do in fact exist”.

The expedition, like most in the history of the marine sciences, rested upon a tripod of nationalism, scientific and personal curiosity. These three components are hinted at, some more strongly than others, among the expedition’s objectives enumerated by Bruun in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition 1950-1952, a popularization of the Galathea’s mission published in 1956. They were to search for large deep sea fish and cephalopods, spread a knowledge of Danish culture and economic life, and, primarily: “explore the ocean trenches in order to find out whether life occurred under the extreme conditions prevailing there – and if so to what extent”.

The image of the sea serpent provided a convenient link between the scientific and nationalistic motivations for the expedition. At the heart of this media campaign was the writer and journalist Hakon Mielche. In the introductory essay of The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition, R. Spärck mentions Mielche’s importance to the expedition, writing: “in 1941 Dr. Anton Bruun gave a lecture on the possibility of the existence of sea serpents, and a report of it was read by the author Hakon Mielche. Mr. Mielche approached Dr. Bruun, and the idea of the Galathea Expedition grew out of their talks”. More than this, it was Mielche who used the image of the sea serpent to provide political and scientific justifications for the project. Though he, unlike Bruun, didn’t appear to have serious intentions of discovering the sea serpent in the deep waters of the world, having later written in his memoirs:

And the sea monster? I’m sorry, I almost forgot. But it had done its full duty by the time we took off. It was the catalyst that got the whole idea going. I assume full responsibility for the exploitation of the poor little thing. But Bruun believed that one day it would be found – and he stood firm until the day he died.

Inside the visitor’s book aboard the Galathea, Mielche had drawn two illustrations of the sea serpent, the last one showing it waving goodbye to the visitors. This picture was placed on the same page as the Danish king’s signature. Thus the very image of the sea serpent proved to be a powerful political tool for the organization, funding and popular support of the expedition.

As has already been noted, however, Bruun’s hopes for finding something actually resembling a sea serpent were more sincere than Mielche’s. Bruun was certain that the strange appearances of deep sea creatures would look like those of sea monsters to those unfamiliar with them, and hoped to find the origin of the sea serpent myth in deep sea biology. Yet it is also apparent that Bruun wished to downplay his search for sea serpents after the Galathea expedition had finished its voyage.

Another essay in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition by H. Volsøe, the expedition’s resident expert on sea snakes, also downplays the serpentine inspiration for the voyage, stating that in the course of his work: “It was necessary to put on a serious scientific face

in order to convince [people] that there really are such creatures [as sea snakes] and that they probably have nothing at all to do with the Great Sea Serpent which obviously underlay their skepticism”, at which point Volsøe puts the topic to rest until the very end of his essay in which he states that the sea snakes are most likely not the model for “the countless reports of the Great Sea Serpent” owing to their relatively small size.

Despite this there is one place where Bruun’s disappointment can still be seen. In his discussion of Galatheathauma axeli, he comments that it is “unquestionably the strangest catch of the Galathea Expedition, and altogether one of the oddest creatures in the teeming variety of the fish world. But we caught only one, right at the end of the cruise, and still no one has caught the Great Sea Serpent”. This seems to have been all of Bruun’s comments about the “Great Sea Serpent” after the expedition, a notion which nevertheless formed the early heart of its inspiration.

From: Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. (Endeavour, vol. 30. 2006)

For more information:

http://www.galathea3.dk/uk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampyroteuthis_infernalis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galathea_expeditions

Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It.

Bruun, A. F. “Objectives of the Expedition”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

—, “Animal Life of the Sea Bottom”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. (Endeavour, vol. 30. 2006)

Spärck, R. “Background and Origin of the Expedition”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

Volsøe, H. “Sea Snakes”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)